I'll tell you up front—some of you are not going to like what I have to say here. When you look at the title, your hackles will immediately rise. You're going to want to dive into arguments about casual vs. competitive, social vs. unfun, the spirit of EDH, social contracts, and more. You're going to want to question the responsibility of an RC member making such suggestions, but I'll head that off right away. This isn't about a direction I'm looking to take the format; it's not about what I want to suggest for everyone. It's about personal preferences, not about a style of play that I think is somehow objectively best for everyone. There is no objectively best. There is simply what people like and don't. I do, however, think that there is "better for the broadest group," which is the tack I'm going to take.
You might be thinking "why not just ban them?" The answer is straightforward. While we ban the worst offenders, the cards which we feel create the most undesirable game states, the cards I'm going to talk about today aren't necessarily the worst and may have particularly valid applications within the play styles of some groups. I hope you're not going to get tired of me hammering on the point that this isn't about validity of any style but rather about preference. It's about resonance.
I'm going to ask you to give me a chance to make my case. I suspect that I'm not going to convince too many of you who aren't already on my side, but I hope that you'll nonetheless see where I'm coming from and at least develop some sympathy for the argument. At the very least, I'm going to ask you to avoid giving into deriding a particular style of play or feeling the need to put all of us into buckets.
Before we get there, I want to lay a little groundwork. The first is on the meaning of social contract. The social contract doesn't suggest rainbows and unicorns. It doesn't mean "no land destruction" or "no infinite combos." It simply means considering the enjoyment of the players, which is something inherent to the multiplayer game. It doesn't mean a particular way to play; it means agreeing on a way to play and even in the absence of a strong agreement thinking about more than just yourself. If you know that the other players don't like Stax decks and you play one anyway, you're violating the social contract. If they don't tell you that they don't like Stax decks and then get mad at you when you play one, they've violated it. The social contract is about communication. It's about thinking beyond the rules and thinking about what makes the experience better for everyone involved.
A good example of the social contract involves the line (or "queue" for our European friends) at the bank or movies. There is no law that says you can't butt up to the front of the line. There's probably very little ever written on the etiquette of the queue, yet you know to not do it. If you see someone else do it, you think "what a jerk!" You might even say, "Hey, back of the line," or the more polite, "Excuse me, but you may not have realized that the end of the line is back there."
As another example, my wife doesn't care for Dream Theater (and I love her anyway). She recognizes the virtuosity of the individual members and their extreme talents. She recognizes the complexity of the music. She even recognizes the awesomeness of a few of their songs ("In the Name of God" and "Backs of Angels" in particular). The style of music is just not something that resonates with her. She doesn't say, "I don't like Dream Theater, so you can't listen to it." She says, "When we're together, I'd rather we listen to something we both like." The violation of the social contract would be for me to put on Dream Theater music when we're hanging out. The violation for her would be to erase all of DT from the iPod. It's fine for her not to like it and fine for me to be a rabid fan, but when we come together, we do what's better for the whole.
In all the casual vs. competitive discussion, I think that there's a major point we're missing. The true casuals ("I want to do what I want even if it doesn't win; no one should stop me") and the raw competitives ("I want to win as fast as possible or completely control the game until I do") are actually the outliers of Commander fans. I think that most of us fall somewhere in the "strong but fair" range. We want to have fun and have a challenge at the same time. We understand that it's a game and there must be a winner. We'd like it to be ourselves, but we don't get upset when it's not. We want to do cool stuff, concoct crazy combos, and participate in the epic play. We want to feel like we're in the game—which is where the "fair" point comes in. The continuum there is pretty broad since we have differing views on what's fair, but I think it captures a significant portion of the format's player base.
Once again, this whole thing isn't about validity of styles of play; it's about a style of play that I prefer and I believe that the core fans of the format can get behind. I've committed the sin of intolerance to other play styles before and have long realized the error of that line of thinking. The way any one of us likes to play isn't the only way to play. I personally (and the RC as a whole) support groups in deciding what they want their game to be, from the most comborific to the durdliest. What we want most is for everyone to have fun.
Before we get to the philosophy of the list, let's take a look at our Play of the Week.
Play of the Week
Even when you're on the receiving end of an epic kill, you can appreciate the epicness of it. I was playing Intet, the Dreamer in a five-player game with Apple (Oros, the Avenger), Keith (Trostani, Selesnya's Voice), Wass (Riku of Two Reflections), and Jesse (Grimgrin, Corpse-Born). The game had proceeded along for quite a bit, with some momentum shifts. As Intet does, I had grown some small advantage in resources but not too many threats—I had Seedborn Muse, Stormtide Leviathan, and a bunch of lands. Wass, to my right, had on his turn cast Telemin Performance and copied it twice, once with Chandra and once with Riku, all targeting me. He ended up with Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, Murkfiend Liege, and Oracle of Mul Daya. I wasn't too worried since Leviathan was keeping most attackers at bay.
On my turn, I cast Maelstrom Wanderer (which is quite honestly not the best card in this deck—there are too many control elements—but who doesn't love to cascade?) into Cyclonic Rift and Renegade Doppelganger (which I might be changing to Riptide Mangler). I used Cyclonic Rift to bounce Ulamog back to my hand just in case something bad happened to my defenses. Doppelganger copied Maelstrom Wanderer, but the only attack I had was with Stormtide, so I swung in. I ended my turn after regrowing Cyclonic Rift.
Jesse's turn came next. He had a good swarm of Zombies, but they weren't threatening anyone—until he cast Akroma's Memorial. He spread around the attacks but sent a possibly lethal Grimgrin my way. I overloaded Cyclonic Rift just in case. Wass, the jolly joker that he is, activated his Homeward Path to give me back my two creatures instead of having them go to my hand. Everyone had a good laugh about it, and Jesse passed the turn.
On his turn, Apple started getting excited. He got up, walked over to my side of the table, and looked intently at my creatures, a huge smile on his face. He sat back down and cast Backlash on my Stormtide Leviathan (which was untapped due to Seedborn Muse). I said, "Guess I'll take 9." He said, "Wait . . . I'll Radiate that." The table roared in delight as we counted it up and realized that the bonus Murkfiend Liege was giving to my creatures was going to be the difference. Wass, just trying to do something LOLzy, had sealed my fate. I died knowing that we had truly embraced the chaos.
It turns out that the game got even crazier after I left. Wass regrew Telemin Performance. He cast it and copied it three times, targeting Jesse. After they all resolved, Jesse tapped his own Homeward Path, bringing everyone back to the fold and leading Wass to respond to the Facebook photo of the board state with "I am not a clever man." Wild times all around.
For the most part, I'd like us to avoid cards that take away other players' ability to play the game. They fall into a few broad categories: cards that remove resources, cards that deny resources, and cards that create disproportionate temporal advantage or annoyance (meaning painfully drawing the game out; long games can be great, but long, boring games are not). I suppose in broad terms they're cards which turn the game into solitaire. There are cards that I'll put on this list (and I'll mention which) that are probably fine played once but recurred over and over are a different story. There are also a few cards on the list that I'll mention are okay if they're "play and win" but are undesirable otherwise.
It's worth noting that many cards aren't individually offensive; it's combinations of cards that make things uncomfortable. I've heard more than one call to "ban all two-card combos," which would be just as impossible as it sounds. "Card X can't be played in a deck with card Y" creates an unreasonable burden on deckbuilders. "Card X can't be used with card Y" would change the nature of the game so much as to make it unrecognizable. Of course, the worst would be maintaining such a list. We might talk about undesirable combos in the future, but for now we'll focus on individual cards.
Armageddon: I believe the argument that Armageddon is a good response to excessive ramp strategies to be inherently flawed. Rampy McRamperson likely also has more other stuff than you do because he ramped into it. You can blow up all the lands, but he's still ahead on resources, mostly likely the big, tramply kind. The issue is the ramp player with Armageddon effects, who is already ahead on resources, making any comebacks (which can create those memorable games) highly unlikely.
Brine Elemental: This is one of those that's probably fine in single usage but gets nasty reused. The problem is that once you put it in a deck you have a tough time resisting the urge to also put in Vesuvan Shapeshifter.
Contamination: I'm admittedly on the fence about this one since many decks can make use of black anyway, but it's a lockout strategy that the deck built for it is going to abuse and is going to reduce some players to merely spectators.
Decree of Annihilation: Exiling everything except enchantments and planeswalkers, to include hands, means everyone pretty much has to start living off the top. Staple onto that a nearly uncounterable Armageddon and you have a card that has more than one way of making a game memorably unpleasant.
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV: Another fence-worthy card that eventually made its way on the list because of the combination of abilities. I'd be okay with one or the other but not both (or technically all three, I suppose; I'm counting the colored spell reductions as a single ability). I have a personal bias against Stax strategies in general, though I occasionally enjoy the challenge of trying to overcome them. Occasionally.
Grip of Chaos: Friend of the show and Pro Tour Scorekeeper Nick Fang loves this card—and to an extent, so do I. At a certain point, it goes from chaos-embracing to downright annoying (add Confusion in the Ranks for a stab-yourself-in-the-eyes good time). Gaka from MTG Salvation hits the nail on the head: "One day you'll be using a d20 to determine how many d20s you're using and you won't look at this in nearly the same way."
Humility: This is one I hadn't originally thought of, but when I did some crowdsourcing (more on that below), it came up more than once. People love their creatures, and you blanking them will make them upset. At least with Godhead of Awe, they still have abilities. Most of the great and memorable moments you've had playing the game have involved creatures and their abilities. Games involving Humility are rarely great or memorable.
Identity Crisis: Once again, it's the double-whammy that earns the card a spot. There are times when a graveyard needs to get eaten, and there are times when a player's greedy hand needs to get stripped. But both—especially since you're exiling them—is downright unneighborly.
Iona, Shield of Emeria: While at some basic level, I want to make those monocolored decks suffer because they don't have to worry about color fixing, having them sit and watch is no fun.
Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur: Sure, anyone can get around it with Reliquary Tower, and yes, it costs ten mana. If it couldn't come out before turn 10, I might shrug at it, but too often I find that it's either cheated out (like with Entomb / Animate Dead) or ramped into early in the game, making it drudgery.
Magister Sphinx: There definitely needs to be reasonable protection against crazy life gain strategies, and I'm sure that this card was developed with that in mind. Unfortunately, it's rarely "set you from 200 to ten"; it's "set you from 40 to ten, recur it, set someone else from 40 to ten."
Mindslaver: This is a card that I think is fine as a one-of but in multiples is one of those jokes that gets less funny every time you tell it. It can go from wacky to oppressive in no time.
Myojin of Night's Reach: Fortunately, recursion isn't much of an issue with Myojin of the Black, but once is probably enough. I believe that some discard is reasonable protection, but this is way too asymmetric to be reasonable.
Obliterate: Strangely enough, it's the uncounterability that earns its place on the list and why Jokulhaups stays off the list of worst offenders. It's also one of the aforementioned "it's probably okay if you just win now" cards, but the agonizing grind of Smoldering Tar is face-clawingly painful. The card might be more tolerable in the era of indestructible being a thing—but just barely.
Time Stretch: In general, I think all Time Walk cards (there are 29 of them, fourteen sorceries) are reasonable as one-shots. The permanents, like Magistrate's Scepter or Magosi, the Waterveil, are fine because you have to do some weird gyrations to get them to work. Time Stretch, and its two additional turns, most of the time creates a circumstance where one player is playing and the rest of the table is reduced to watching for a long, long time.
Vicious Shadows: Like you, I want to punish the guy who abuses card draw. VShad unfortunately creates a nervous state for even the player with one card in hand. Yes, it's optional, but "I could kill you but won't" is almost worse than just getting the deed done.
Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger: Another kind of in the Grand Arbiter category, it's the combination of abilities that make it so awful. I wouldn't mind you having the mana doubling (although I don't necessarily like it), but also making my lands lazy grinds my gears.
Wound Reflection: I think the major part of the problem with this card is that it's life loss. Now you have to worry about both the damage that's getting done to you and an unpreventable equal amount getting done to you afterward. The amount of life loss this card can generate is wildly disproportional to its cost.
As I mentioned earlier, I did some crowdsourcing on this one. Most interesting to me was the many responses not of "people shouldn't play these cards," but "I choose to not play these cards." Sure, there were responses of "this is painful to play against," but I found it quite interesting that the self-limitations were a significant number of the posts. It shows me that there are quite a few folks out there who are interested in making the game pleasurable for the people they're playing with, reinforcing the idea of "strong but fair."
Most of the cards which I put on the list came up, but a number of them that I didn't put on the list came up several times: Consecrated Sphinx, Deadeye Navigator, Insurrection, Omniscience, Palinchron, Sylvan Primordial, and Tooth and Nail. This is good insight into the kinds of things that people don't like to do or have done to them. I think part of that group of cards isn't just that they're annoying to play against but that people are just tired of seeing them. In Eternal formats, card fatigue is a real thing. I understand the eye roll that comes with seeing the same cards you've seen repeatedly for the last five years.
There's no absolute and objective "best" or "right" way to play this format; there is only a matter of personal preference. For me, and I believe a large cross-section of Commander's fan base, games can be deep, involved, swingy, interesting, epic, and more fun without the cards I've talked about. Give it a try and I think you might agree with me.
Embracing the Chaos,
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